NYFF 2017: Alain Gomis’s Félicité

We begin with Richard Brody, writing in the New Yorker about Alain Gomis’s Félicité, “a dramatic portrait of a fierce, intrepid woman—a single mother and a powerfully expressive cabaret singer (Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu) in Kinshasa who is wrenched from her routine and discovers newfound purpose when her teen-age son, Samo (Gaetan Claudia), suffers a motorbike accident and is at risk of losing a leg. The movie is, in part, a musical, featuring exhilarating performances by Beya and her band in night-club scenes roiled with dance, alcohol, and eros, and perched on the edge of violence—but it’s all the more an incisive work of sociopolitical analysis, focussed on the health-care system of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

“Céline Bozon’s restless cinematography captures the crush of the daytime crowd just as deftly as it dips its toes into endless, allusive night,” writes Dan Sullivan for Cinema Scope, “and Félicité alluringly oscillates from the high-energy, casually tragic reality of the street to the faintly phantasmagorical serenity of the nocturnal realm and back again. These two worlds are bridged by a wealth of music—both in the form of Félicité’s performances and Félicité’s top-notch soundtrack—effectively clarifying what’s at stake in Gomis’s film: a not-at-all corny case for art as an instrument of peace and a means of survival.”

“Though the second half turns somewhat diffuse, Gomis’s tough and vibrant understanding of romance and struggle scarcely falters,” writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook. “Neither does his sense of wonder toward his indomitable leading lady: Riding in the back of a motorcycle, Beya might be Gong Li in Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju or one of Satyajit Ray’s proud women, all too aware of the peril and autonomy of living day to day and song to song.”

For Clayton Dillard at Slant, “the film's sudden devotion to symbolism, as in repeated visions of Félicité descending into bodies of water amid darkness, never transcends stylish posturing to ever give a concrete sense of Félicité's trauma.” What’s more, Gomis “never reconciles throughout how the film's disparate parts, which variously represent memories, dreams, and the hardship of everyday life, are meant to fit together. In the end, Félicité feels at best incomplete because it has circled around a multitude of potential thematic directions without meaningfully committing to any.”

“However porous the boundary between reality and fantasy may be in Félicité, the film, grounded by Mputu’s intricate weariness, never falters,” counters Melissa Anderson at 4Columns.

“Overlong, with too many repeated beats, Gomis’s is a film of many hues, with surreal, symbolic flashbacks, local color (a very real traffic robot) glimpsed during motorbike and car rides, and the ever-present medicine of music in the air,” finds Justin Stewart at In Review Online.

“As the film festival circuit winds on,” writes Bradley Warren at the Playlist, “Félicité is nothing but enriched by its adjacent programming to Cannes-feted non-fiction Makala, which brings a more measured, observational eye to its Congolese subject’s economic plight. Gomis’s immediacy and documentarian Emmanuel Gras’s rigor may seem at odds, but are ultimately complimentary. Both features privilege the dignity and perseverance of their characters over crude images of poverty. Although the existence of Félicité, justly awarded the runner-up prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, might only be possible because of the financial and technical resources of the French and larger European film industry, its humanist, musical vibrancy makes a major case for the significance and individuality of African cinema.”

Update, 10/7:Félicité is a melding of many conflicting elements,” writes Dustin Chang at ScreenAnarchy. “There is documentary-like naturalism . . . mixed in with a recurring, beautiful dream sequence in the woods in near darkness. There is local music (featuring the Kasai Allstars) rubbing shoulders with the Kinshasa Symphonic Orchestra playing classical pieces by Arvo Pärt. . . . Pärt’s somber music fills in for somber moments but it fits surprisingly well in the film.”

Update, 10/16: “It was a mystery!” Gomis exclaims in conversation with Murtada Elfadl at the Film Stage. “I had this character, this woman I knew in Senegal. And her son, this kid with an amputated leg. It was something that happened to a young cousin of mine. And at some point the music came, I don’t really remember how. But it was also clear to me that I wanted to make a film about the city, an African city, about a working class neighborhood. Trying to capture something that’s sometimes hard to show, a dignity. That, yes, it’s hard but in fact we are doing it, we are making it through.”

Updates, 10/25: “What’s remarkable about Félicité,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the A.V. Club, “is that it devotes its entire second half to exploring what happens when the title character fails to achieve her goal. It’s as if Se7en’s bleak conclusion had been that film’s midpoint and Morgan Freeman’s detective, rather than muttering ‘I’ll be around,’ had proceeded to have a complete nervous breakdown. Indeed, Félicité itself seems to lose its bearings, in the best possible way, once its ostensible plot has collapsed.”

For the Village Voice’s Alan Scherstuhl, it’s all “a little too long, a little too relentless, a little too blunt.” But there are “moody interludes [that] suggest that Félicité has methods for finding peace even as her life has gone to chaos, and the best news I can give you is that she eventually finds someone else to share them.”

Updates, 10/26: “The camerawork and cutting often have the fleetness of a documentary, but there’s nothing sloppy about them,” writes Glenn Kenny in the New York Times. “There is one sequence near the middle of the film, in which Félicité, standing against a blue wall, hears more bad news about her son. She collapses, her back sliding down the wall, and the camera, staying near her head, follows her. There’s a palpable immediacy to the scene; it resolves in a close-up of Félicité that is as exquisitely framed as any shot from Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Introducing his interview with Gomis for BOMB,Joseph Pomp suggests that the “polyphonous texture” of Félicité “manages to lift this simple story into something approaching a symphony.”

Update, 10/27: “I got everything I wanted from the 55th New York Film Festival on the night I watched Félicité,” writes Stuart Klawans in the Nation. It’s “something like a Dardenne brothers movie, but with a driving beat, a goofy love story, and the interpolation of some mysterious, blue-tinted images of orchestral performances and forest settings to remind me that Félicité’s mental world isn’t all slums and soggy francs. Put differently, Félicité is an outgoing, exploratory movie, brimming with curiosity and feeling.”

Update, 11/3:Félicité may be Alain Gomis’s least overtly political film,” writes Jonathan Romney in Film Comment, “but this French-Senegalese director has consistently explored themes of hybrid identity in the post-colonial world. The title of his first feature, L’Afrance (2001), says it all: the film addresses the experience of inhabiting a place, or a state of being, that is neither la France nor l’Afrique, yet is somehow (soul-destroyingly? or invigoratingly?) both at once.”

Update, 11/11: “It’s a film with seriousness and compassion, though a little lengthy and diffuse,” finds the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “Dramatic storm clouds gather and pass overhead without ever quite bursting into rain.”

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